Saturday, December 27, 2008

An Opportunity Missed

Thoughts on Robert Mailer Anderson's Boonville...

I picked up Robert Mailer Anderson’s debut novel Boonville at the Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, California, this past summer. The book caught my eye for two reasons: first, it is a book about place, something I am working on myself; and second, it is about a place I am familiar with, at least in passing. I first became aware of Boonville, a Northern California hamlet that lies between the Sonoma wine country and the Mendocino coast, when I was a boy and saw a news report about Boontling, the strange local language (a somewhat bizarre derivative of American English) that is still spoken by some of the locals there. I became further aware of it when my father, during the post-divorce years that doubled as his midlife crisis, traveled there often to recapture his small-town roots by drinking and partying with newfound friends from the counties to the north. (We live in the South Bay Area.) When I finally went to Boonville myself, it was as a pass-through en route to Mendocino, a coastal town that—with its ocean and its orientation transposed—became the image of the fictitious Cabot Cove of the TV series “Murder, She Wrote.” (Those spectacular helicopter shots that opened each episode, showing a charming village on a rocky coastline, were not taken in Maine, but in Northern California, the camera pointing south, not north.) Little did I know, when my wife and I stopped off in Boonville for lunch or a bit of wine or microbrew shopping, that we were a type that has since been cast. In the novel Boonville, there is a scene where the protagonist, John, begins his stay in town, having traveled from Miami under tremulous circumstances. In this scene, my wife and I are represented by two yuppies seated at the restaurant bar:

The bartender tramped three paces to take a couple’s order, waiting patiently while a bald man in a sports jacket asked about the “nose” and “acidity” of various wines on a wine list. After a litany of questions concerning “harvests,” “fermentation,” and “barrel selection,” he inquired about the house red, asking if it was “full-bodied.” The bartender answered, “Like Liz Taylor on a chocolate binge.” Uncorking a bottle labeled Edmeades, he poured two glasses with the nonchalance of someone who had spent more than their fair share of time behind a slab of mahogany. The bald man shoved his face into the glass, held it up to the light, swirled it, and then took a sip.

“Jammy,” he said, as if he had stomped the grapes himself.

His companion sampled hers, seemingly satisfied. The bartender returned the bottle to its shelf, marked a check with a pencil and set the bill in front of them in a brandy snifter. The two kissed as if the bartender’s tip was to witness their affection. (p. 15)

Now, I’ve got a full head of hair, never wear a sports jacket, and when I kiss my wife in public, it is to express affection, not display it. However, I am interested in harvests, fermentation, and barrel selection (without the quote marks), and I have, as I say, been known to stop into Boonville for a drop en route to Mendocino or back. And herein lies the problem—and conflict—I had with Boonville. To me, Anderson is, not to put too fine a point on it, full of himself. And unfortunately, this ego—or perhaps it’s just a need to come off as a huge ego—casts a dark shadow over what I find to be, in flashes, a pretty fine piece of work.

In one of those preliminary statements ostensibly meant to dispel any parity between fact and fiction, but in fact meant to emphasize such parity, Anderson writes:
As for the hippies in the county who may be upset at the depiction of hippies, I say, “Tough shit, hippie.” Anyone willing to identify themselves as a hippie here in the 21st century has their head up their ass and gets what they deserve. (p. vii – unnumbered)
What is unsettling in that statement is not the attitude of a writer who would wave a dismissive hand over a population, or assume, in advance, that “the hippies of the county” would be the least interested in reading his book, or appoint himself the critic qualified and capable enough to define the 21st century for us. What is unsettling is that those who read the book will find that three of its pivotal characters are not only hippies, but are drawn with a good bit of depth and sensitivity. One of these is the mother of John’s love interest Sarah McKay, who in her final meeting with Sarah says, “It doesn’t seem fair. I’m not that old…My life can’t be coming to a close. I’m not through with it yet.” The passage goes on:
You’re not even 50, Sarah wanted to point out, but instead crossed her arms, trying to guess what Mom had swallowed recently other than a carob-covered raisin. She could hear the fear coupled with the fatigue of being awake too long. But her voice wasn’t racing, her pupils weren’t dilated. It definitely wasn’t dope or wine, unless one or the other had been laced. Mom was riding something unknown to Sarah, something from the medicine chest cut with the stimulus of isolation, old videos, and her daughter’s imminent departure. (p. 245)
The portrayal of an aging, sorrowful hippie in a book that purports to dismiss all hippies with a macho “tough shit” is indicative of a larger dissonance: Boonville is real writing—conflict, characterization, reflection, imagery—interwoven with a coarse and at times slapstick brand of humor that provides the intermittent chuckle and even the occasional out-loud laughter, but does so at too high a cost. The humor, while funny, does not penetrate, and in fact dulls the overall impact of the story. It’s a book that could be a great romp, or a deep exploration of a quirky place and its bizarre inhabitants, but its attempt to be both at once, for me, falls flat.

In the acknowledgments, Anderson thanks such luminaries as Norman Mailer, Isabelle Allende, Carl Hiassen, and Calvin Trillin for their “support and kind words,” but this is one reader who feels that more time could have been spent drawing from such august counsel and crafting a more nuanced Boonville. To me, the book is an opportunity missed.

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

After the Fact II – An Unexpected Prop. 8 Opponent

Will there be enough room in that grave for his 40 wives to roll over with him?

In November, a few days before Californians narrowly approved Proposition 8, the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, a San Francisco Chronicle writer reported seeing a “No on Prop 8” sign on the lawn of Steve Young, who lives not far from my former neighborhood in Palo Alto, California. For the ESPN-weary and -agnostic among us, Young is the former San Francisco 49er quarterback and NFL Hall of Famer who also happens to be a graduate of Brigham Young University and, in fact, the great-great-great-grandson of Brigham Young himself. A bit ironic when you consider that Proposition 8 almost certainly would not have passed in California had it not been for a massive invasion of Mormons and Mormon money from Utah: as Hendrik Hertzberg reports in this week’s New Yorker, “Almost all the early canvassers for the cause were Mormons, …[and of] the forty million dollars spent on behalf of Prop. 8, some twenty million came from members or organs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Mormon invasion or no, Barb Young, Steve’s wife, declared, “We believe all families matter and we do not believe in discrimination.” Scurrilous words indeed from the wife of a (perhaps former) favorite son.

So I ask you, what is more ironic, the fact that the antecedent followers of Brigham Young, a man who had 40 wives, are now dictating to Californians who they can and cannot marry, or the fact that Young’s most famous antecedent, Steve Young, was against the measure from the start?

Friday, November 28, 2008

William Kennedy, Time Traveler

Note: After a rather extensive hiatus during which I, along with the rest of you, witnessed the birth of an exciting new era for America and the world, I return with this brief review of William Kennedy's novel Ironweed.

William Kennedy’s 1983 novel Ironweed was recommended to me by a writing teacher who was discussing the treatment of time in fiction. By this he meant all dimensions of time from how the narrative present and the past and future events surrounding it are portrayed to how the pacing of the story is handled. It is the third book in Kennedy’s Albany cycle, a series of novels of early 20th century America that are centered around the character of Francis Phelan, a professional baseball player who becomes, in the end, an aging hobo on the streets of Albany during the Depression. Ironweed is the story of those hobo days. In it, Kennedy conjures the characters of the earlier stories by bringing the hallucinations of the drunken and emaciated Francis right into the scene. Kennedy introduces this device, which becomes so central to the story, in the opening scene, in which Francis is riding along in a truck through a cemetery. Fittingly, it is Francis’s parents who are conjured first:

Francis’s mother twitched nervously in her grave as the truck carried him nearer to her; and Francis’s father lit his pipe, smiled at his wife’s discomfort, and looked out from his own bit of sod to catch a glimpse of how much his son had changed since the train accident (pp. 1–2).

Using this device, gangsters, bums, and former ballplayers are brought into the room with Francis as he struggles to protect life and limb against impossible odds. The old dead are joined by new dead, and the tragic years of Francis’s life unfold and interweave with heart-wrenching clarity.

Through this device, a story that has a narrative present spanning only a couple of days is able to span a lifetime. Francis relives tender moments like his teen love affair with a neighbor woman, and he relives just as vividly all the gruesome happenings his uncontrollable temper has wrought. We see and feel the connections between the two, and in so doing, see and feel the interconnections in our own lives.

The pacing of this novel is (to use what is apparently becoming my favorite word) languid. The events surge and wallow, as events in the lives of the destitute often do. A woman is found inebriated and freezing, and time jolts forward; the same woman is found frozen to death, and time drips along at a trickle. An evening wasted in a bar becomes a stage for new losses and failures, while another evening in a friend’s apartment is loaded up with the characters and the baggage of an earlier life. The scenes are filled, one way or another, but the movement is controlled by the steady hand of the writer.

There is, of course, more to Ironweed than masterful management of the dimension of time. It is a gripping account of an era created by a man who never saw that era, a staggering indictment of the present day delivered through a faithful portrayal of a simpler, but equally devastating time. And it is a story of love made undeniably real by the almost complete absence of outward expressions of love, sentiment, or even admiration. There is also some wonderful character work here, with Francis so clearly mirrored off characters like the crafty and vulnerable Helen and the simple-minded Rudy, and character arcs so expertly interwoven to create a balance of devastating emotion that holds the reader for page after page.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

An Ambitious Work for an Ambitious Nation

Thoughts on Ethan Canin’s America America.

Ethan Canin’s latest novel, America America, is the story of a political campaign interweaved gracefully with the stories of some of the American lives touched by it. The theme of the book, America, a nation both blessed and troubled by its history, is conveyed through a narrative of expansive range, a story that juxtaposes the personal and intimate with the impersonal and sweeping, and in the process closely examines the connective tissue between the two.

This is, if nothing else, an ambitious book. It touches an aristocratic family’s rags-to-riches beginnings in the 19th century, a chain of defining events in the politically turbulent early 1970s, and the present itself, against which these past events are reflected. Canin’s use of this well-worn technique is impeccable: the older man, given time and impetus to review and reconsider, and lacking the energy for vigorous living, recounts a story from his youth, a time imbued with dynamic change and action—and, of course, a profound string of events. This, I think—this use of time as both a frame for the events of the story and an emotional construct—is where Canin takes his biggest risk. He challenges us, here, to engage fully in the 19th century Scottish emigration and the stormy politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s, while at the same time identifying closely, in the present day, with the narrator/protagonist Corey Sifter, a modern man: a husband, father, newspaper editor, and mentor. His enticements are flowing prose and deep characterizations, both of which are compelling, but dependent in the end on the story as the final, irresistible draw.

Within each timeframe, Canin creates characters who effectively portray the many dimensions of America, what one recent presidential candidate has called “two Americas,” but what Canin shows us so clearly is actually a multi-colored tapestry, an infinite number of Americas, a unique country, in fact, for each and every one of us. The characters start with Eoghan Metarey, the first-generation immigrant who used guile and ruthlessness, rather than book learning, to amass the fortune that made later events possible. Then there is his son, Liam Metarey, the conflicted modern-day patriarch around whom the central tragedies of the story revolve. In the political middle frame of the story, the 1972 presidential campaign, there are Corey, a coming-of-age youth and protégé of Liam Metarey, the patriarch’s prescient wife June Metarey, the charismatic and fatally flawed senator and presidential candidate Henry Bonwiller, JoEllen Charney, his ill-fated mistress, the compliant yet wise columnist Glen Burrant, Corey’s loving working-class parents Grange and Anna Sifter, the next-door neighbor Eugene McGowar, and the Metarey daughters Christian and Clara. Many of these characters also play a role in the present day, but the central characters here are Corey, now a newspaper editor, his intern and mentee Trieste Millbury, and his wife, father, and Mr. McGowar. Remarkably, almost all of these characters are brought into nearly every part of the book, creating a weave of character arcs that connect with each other and with the larger arc of the story in sometimes subtle and sometimes profound ways. In two examples, Canin ties Corey’s own daughters to the unfortunate fate of JoEllen Charney, herself a daughter of loving parents (pp. 317–330), and he brings out the wisdom of the working men, Grange Sifter and Eugene McGowar, in a scene late in the book that exposes a joke on the robber baron Eoghan Metarey (pp. 434–436). In this last scene, he even uses the young Trieste Millbury as a vehicle, adding yet another strand to the weave.

The primary risk of such an ambitious timescale and range of characters, is that the story will drag, and frankly, for some people this one will. Canin’s prose style is anything but spare. I have heard him say of editing and trimming, “I just can’t do it.” He finds the writing itself so “excruciating,” he said, that he couldn’t even imagine going back through the text to revise it. (We in the audience didn’t press him on this question, so were left wondering whether his published books are all first-draft material, or if not, who it is that does the editing and trimming. A question, perhaps, for another appearance.) So if your tastes tend toward the likes of Hornby or Eggars, this book might not be for you. But if you are a person like me, who at the age of twelve sat glued to each and every hour of the televised Watergate hearings, and who regularly pores over volumes of historical nonfiction both large and small, this book will serve you as a lengthy and quiet pleasure. (And, just for the record, I also enjoy the likes of Hornby and Eggars.)

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

After the Fact I – The New Yorker Cover

Random thoughts on topics that have long since been flushed from the news cycles.

It’s just over one month since the flap ignited over the July 21 New Yorker magazine cover that depicted Barack Obama as a Bin Laden–worshipping Muslim and his wife Michelle as an AK-47–toting Al Quaeda insurgent. Admittedly, this is old news, but that’s what “After the Fact” is all about: I get to ruminate on something for weeks before positing an opinion. (Pssst. If you start your own blog, you can do the same thing!)

When I think about the flap over the cover, I get a little pissed off, as I’m sure a lot of living, breathing, thinking people out there do. But as I have thought about this, anger has evolved into its more rational antecedent, regret, and I have found myself distracted by two regrets in particular.

The first—and this is probably obvious—is that the flap occurred at all. I regret that because I first heard about the cover on the radio—long before I had actually received my copy of the New Yorker, seen the cover for myself, and experienced a reaction that would have been pure, unfettered, and uninfluenced by the likes of PBS reporters, talk radio hosts and callers, and above all, cable news “correspondents.” Now all I can do is claim to have found the cover hard-hitting, but in no way offensive; to have been amused by it in the same way NPR commentator Daniel Schorr was, according to his comments on the July 19th Weekend Edition program:

I saw it, my wife saw it, we looked at it and we thought, wo, that’s quite a parody on conservative views of Obama and his wife and all the rest of it…and we thought it was alright as satire, if you will, and then we began hearing things on cable television and all over and all of a sudden there were people up in arms over it…
Schorr goes on to say, “I guess what it shows is that we are in a state where you can’t afford to use satire because people will take you literally and get mad.” And, unfortunately, if that anger (or, one might say, stupidity) gets spread in the media, independent thought becomes the casualty. So I don’t know whether I’m responding to the cover or the flap over it, but in the end I couldn’t be more delighted that someone finally struck hard at the “Obama/Osama” idiocy that has all-too-easily found a toehold in the national discourse. I mean, sometimes you just have to stop coddling the stupid people—people like Ivan Stickles, a carpenter from Hopewell, PA, who was quoted in today’s national edition of the New York Times. Stickles referred to false rumors that Barack Obama did not shake hands with U.S. troops on his recent trip to Afghanistan:

“There’s this e-mail that he [Obama] didn’t shake hands with the troops,” Mr. Stickles said of the false rumor. “I don’t have time to check out if it’s true, but if it is, it’s very offensive.”
Stickles was interviewed in his driveway, where he’d been working on his motorcycle. Apparently the motorcycle and the spam e-mail he gets are more important to him than pesky little irritations like truth and accuracy.

That same Times article quoted another rank-and-file Pennsylvanian, George Timko, who illustrates my second regret about the New Yorker cover:
Mr. Timko is a burly fellow, with close-cropped white hair and a Fu Manchu mustache, and a gold necklace that rests on his bare chest. “Barack Obama makes me nervous,” said Mr. Timko, a 65-year-old retiree with a garden hose in hand. “Who is he? Where’d he come from?”
Now Timko may not be the kind of voter who would normally read the New Yorker (to say nothing of the two detailed autobiographies Obama has written), but if he had picked up the July 21 issue and looked beyond the cover, his questions would have been answered. Because while the media was burning news cycles talking every which way about the cover, another much more important Obama-related feature, Ryan Lizza’s article “Making It – How Chicago shaped Obama,” was going largely unnoticed. The article, a thoroughly researched and masterfully written account of how Obama crafted his unlikely and meteoric rise through the Chicago political machine, paints for Timko (and anyone else who isn’t too busy working on his motorcycle to read) a riveting picture of a young, ambitious community organizer who expertly and carefully created an image—in fact, some might say, a brand—that catapulted him not only into the Illinois State Senate, but also into the United States Senate, and if all goes according to plan, into the White House. It’s a top-flight piece of journalism in an era when the entire profession is in tatters. So because we were so all-fired paranoid about possibly offending people who are too stupid to see satire as satire, a real account with real information and real insight into the man Barack Obama has become, insight that can help us make informed choices about how to cast our votes, passed by with nary a whisper. (It’s still there, though, so take a hint: click here and read it.)

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Searching for Deliverance from the Malaise

My take on Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1962)…

Note: If you have not read The Moviegoer, you may want to pass on reading this post. It contains extensive excerpts and exposes some key plot points.

Because many of my friends from Queens University of Charlotte are Walker Percy acolytes, I was drawn—happily, it turns out—to The Moviegoer, Percy’s first novel and the winner of the 1962 National Book Award for Fiction. Published when Percy was 46 years old (an encouraging factoid for those of us in our late 40s who remain unpublished), this brilliant and penetrating novel is, more than anything else, a psychological and emotional journey. It is what I would call the South’s answer to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. Percy, like Yates, gives us commonplace characters whose uncommon thoughts, feelings, and actions, both large and small, expose an America that is tidy and prosperous on the surface, but decadent, aggrieved, and desperate underneath.

Percy’s answer to Yates’s Frank Wheeler is Jack Bolling, the first-person protagonist who serves as the mirror against which post-war America is reflected. The most prominent citizen of Jack’s world, within the space of the novel, is Kate Cutrer, his cousin and companion, and a troubled, nearly suicidal drug user. The story Percy weaves around these and the extensive cast of minor characters is subtle and languid, existing only to propel us into the depths of human frailty. As to writing the other, Percy is a master, and this is the real lesson of the book for the striving writer. In Jack, the author gives us a protagonist who is utterly unsympathetic, save for his fastidiousness. Jack first describes himself this way:

I manage a small branch office of my uncle’s brokerage firm. My house is the basement apartment of a raised bungalow belonging to Mrs. Schexnaydre, the widow of a fireman. I am a model tenant and a model citizen and take pleasure in doing all that is expected of me…I subscribe to Consumer Reports and as a consequence I own a first-class television set, an all but silent air conditioner and a very long lasting deodorant. My armpits never stink. (pp. 6–7)
All this from a man not yet thirty and in the prime of his life. But later we learn that tidiness and order, making money, and bedding his pretty young secretaries aren’t really enough for Jack: he is, it turns out, acutely aware that an anvil of superficiality is all that secures him, and a part of him wants to struggle against that. Learning this, we grieve with him at the death of his handicapped half-brother and share in his shame at the disapproval of his aunt.

Minor characters also move in and out, both to mirror Jack and to reinforce his manic view of the world. His description of Eddie Lovell, a friend he chats with on a street corner, tells not only of Jack’s extreme self-consciousness, but also of the avarice and emptiness that press in on him:

…As he talks, he slaps a folded newspaper against his pants leg and his eye watches me and at the same time sweeps the terrain behind me, taking note of the slightest movement. A green truck turns down Bourbon Street; the eye sizes it up, flags it down, demands credentials, waves it on. A businessman turns in at the Maison Blanche building; the eye knows him, even knows what he is up to. And all the while he talks very well. His lips move muscularly, molding words into pleasing shapes, marshalling arguments, and during the slight pauses are held poised, attractively everted in a Charles-Boyer pout—while a little web of saliva gathers in a corner like the clear oil of a good machine. (pp. 18–19)
Similarly, Jack’s description of his Uncle Jules tells us more about Jack’s own shallow perspective than it does about his uncle and benefactor:

Uncle Jules is as pleasant a fellow as I know anywhere. Above his long Creole horseface is a crop of thick gray cut short as a college boy’s. His shirt encases his body in a way that pleases me. It fits him so well. My shirts always have something wrong with them; they are too tight in the collar or too loose around the waist. Uncle Jules’ collar fits his dark neck like a tape; his cuffs, folded like a napkin, just peep out past his coatsleeve, and his shirt front: the impulse comes over me at times to bury my nose in that snowy expanse of soft fine-spun cotton. Uncle Jules is the only man I know whose victory in the world is total and unqualified. (pp. 30–31)
And then there are Walter Wade, who, briefly engaged to Kate, is a spotlight shining on Jack’s failures and shortcomings, and Mercer, the African American servant who unclothes Jack’s lingering racism.

And then, near the end of the book, when Jack is beginning to lose his cherished sense of control, there is the St. Louisan, a man he notices on the train during an ill-fated trip with Kate to Chicago. Jack observes this man in a physical way that suggests a feeling of arousal:

…His suit is good. He sits with his legs crossed, one well-clad haunch riding up like a ham, his top leg held out at an obtuse angle by the muscle of his calf.

His brown hair is youthful (he himself is thirty-eight or forty) and makes a cowlick in front. With the cowlick and the black eyeglasses he looks quite a bit like the actor Gary Merrill and has the same certified permission to occupy pleasant space with his pleasant self. (p. 188)
In time, as I’ll show later, this man from St. Louis casts a painful reflection that holds Jack captive, like the sight of an accident on the freeway.

By presenting the story through memories, observations, and musings like these, Percy gently draws us into two competing dimensions of Jack’s worldview: the search and the malaise. He starts with the hopeful, the idea of a search that might deliver Jack from suffocating “everydayness.” Calling up his memory of being wounded in the war, Jack introduces the search to us this way:

…This morning, for the first time in years, there occurred to me the possibility of a search. I dreamed of the war, no, not quite dreamed but woke with the taste of it in my mouth, the queasy-quince taste of 1951 and the Orient. I remembered the first time the search occurred to me. I came to myself under a chindolea bush. Everything is upside-down for me, as I shall explain later. What are generally considered to be the best times are for me the worst times, and the worst of times was one of the best. My shoulder didn’t hurt but it was pressed hard against the ground as if somebody sat on me. Six inches from my nose a dung beetle was scratching around under the leaves. As I watched, there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something. I vowed that if I ever got out of this fix, I would pursue the search. Naturally, as soon as I recovered and got home, I forgot all about it. (p. 11)
This mysterious idea of a search persists in his mind as he glides through his mundane morning preparations, until at last he addresses the reader directly and explains the search succinctly:

What is the nature of the search? you ask.

Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked.

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn’t miss a trick.

To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair. (p. 13)
At this point, the search is largely forgotten for 130 pages until Jack visits his mother’s house, where he and his secretary, Sharon, after whom he has long been lusting, visit his half-brothers and sisters, and where he is confronted by two perspectives on God: his and his family’s:

My mother’s family think I have lost my faith and they pray for me to recover it. I don’t know what they’re talking about. Other people, so I have read, are pious as children and later become skeptical… Not I. My unbelief was invincible
from the beginning. I could never make head or tail of God…

…The best I can do is lie rigid as a stick under the cot, locked in a death grip of everydayness, sworn not to move a muscle until I advance another inch in my search. The swamp exhales beneath me and across the bayou a night bittern pumps away like a diesel. At last the iron grip releases and I pull my pants off the chair, fish out a notebook and scribble in the dark:


Starting point for search:

It no longer avails to start with creatures and prove God.

Yet it is impossible to rule God out.

The only possible starting point: the strange fact of one’s own invincible apathy—that if the proofs were proved and God presented himself, nothing would be changed. Here is the strangest fact of all.

Abraham saw signs of God and believed. Now the only sign is that all the signs in the world make no difference. Is this God’s ironic revenge? But I am onto him. (pp. 145–146)
If the search is “to be onto something,” the malaise is the everydayness at constant war with it. The irony is that Jack is able to pursue the search with only the barest energy, but the malaise is something he feels deeply and viscerally. He first describes it, again directly addressing the reader, as he and Sharon drive to their initial outing at the beach:

…As luck would have it, no sooner do we cross Bay St. Louis and reach the beach drive than we are involved in an accident. Fortunately it is not serious. When I say as luck would have it, I mean good luck. Yet how, you might wonder, can even a minor accident be considered good luck?

Because it provides a means of winning out over the malaise, if one has the sense to take advantage of it.

What is the malaise? you ask. The malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost.

You say it is a simple thing surely, all gain and no loss, to pick up a good-looking woman and head for the beach on the first fine day of the year. So say the newspaper poets. Well it is not such a simple thing and if you have ever done it, you know it isn’t—unless, of course, the woman happens to be your wife or some other everyday creature so familiar to you that she is as invisible as you yourself. Where there is a chance of gain, there is also chance of loss. Whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise. (pp. 120–121)
Ultimately, even the search is fouled by experience, as Jack finds he is simply not up to it. It is the St. Louisan, the minor character more similar to Jack than any other, who brings this realization home to him on the train ride to Chicago with Kate:

…I have to admire the St. Louisan for his neat and well-ordered life, his gold pencil and his scissors-knife and his way of clipping articles on the convergence of the physical sciences and the social sciences; it comes over me that in the past few days my own life has gone to seed. I no longer eat and sleep regularly or write philosophical notes in my notebook and my fingernails are dirty. The search has spoiled the pleasure of my tidy and ingenious life in Gentilly. (p. 191)
And when Jack reaches what should be a pinnacle, his chance to consummate his relationship with Kate, it is not the gallant search and its culmination that we experience, but rather the decisive victory of the malaise. By now, he has taken to voicing his remonstrations to the imagined person of Rory Calhoun, the actor, and all the romantic characters Rory has played. And to Rory and the many heroes he represents, Jack describes his fateful night with Kate:

I’ll have to tell you the truth, Rory, painful though it is. Nothing would please me more than to say that I had done one of two things: Either that I did what you do: tuck Debbie in your bed and, with a show of virtue so victorious as to be ferocious, grab pillow and blanket and take to the living room sofa… Or—do what a hero in a novel would do:… when it happens that a maid comes to his bed full of longing for him, he puts down his book in a good and cheerful spirit and gives her as merry a time as she could possibly wish for…

No, Rory, I did neither. We did neither. We did very badly and almost did not do at all. Flesh poor flesh failed us. The burden was too great and flesh poor flesh, neither hallowed by sacrament nor despised by spirit (for despising is not the worst fate to overtake the flesh), but until this moment seen through and canceled, rendered null by the cold and fishy eye of the malaise—flesh poor flesh now at this moment summoned all at once to be all and everything, end all and be all, the last and only hope—quails and fails. (p. 199–200)
As a story of failure and loneliness in a crowd, The Moviegoer, like Revolutionary Road, is not fanciful. It does not feel the need to revise history, fly or float off the planet, or create a new language. It simply gives us ordinary people who peel back the prosperity of the post-war era to expose the emotional barrenness underneath. On its journey into the depths of human lassitude, The Moviegoer takes the direct route.

Note: Page numbers are from the First Vintage Internation Edition, April 1998, ISBN 0-375-70196-6.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ethan Canin and Empathy

How the bestselling author of America America made me once again appreciate my father…

Driving home from San Francisco last Friday night, I found myself thinking about my father’s wedding. Coincidentally, my father was married in 1992, the same year both I and my older sister were married. It was, of course, my father’s second wedding, so I flew to Minnesota to attend, as did (as I recall) 6 of my 8 siblings. The master of ceremonies at the reception, Wayne, was one of those warm, smiling, unfailingly genuine people of whom there are far too few in the world, so when he opened the floor to anyone wishing to say a few words about my dad and his new wife, I and my siblings, all of us otherwise painfully shy outside our familial bastion, paraded to the mike. I distinctly recall my older brother Blair, then a soft-spoken man of 34 who already had 8 children of his own, describing, in a deep baritone voice designed to beat back the welling tears, my father’s most consistent lesson to us, the lesson central to all the other lessons he taught: “Put yourself in their shoes.” I was not nearly as successful as Blair in beating back those tears, but my message to the people gathered was similar, as was the message of each of my siblings who went to the mike that night.

That lesson, and the myriad memories that flow from it, passed through my mind as I drove down Highway 280 because that was essentially the same lesson bestselling author Ethan Canin carried to his audience at Bookshop West Portal that night. Canin was reading from his new novel America America, which Richard Russo has called “as rich, ambitious, intelligent, emotionally satisfying, and important a work of fiction as we’re likely to get this year.” Tracing the history of a small upstate New York town and its heroic and flawed favorite sons, the book tells a riveting story of family, community, and political reality. For his reading, Canin chose a collection of passages that follow an affair between a senator, Henry Bonwiller, and a young waitress, JoEllen Charney. After several meetings, the affair takes a revelatory turn for the girl:

Then comes the day he tells her he’s thinking of something big. Later, after he’s dressed, he says he’s not just thinking it, he’s going to do it.

“What,” she says.

“Be president.”

“President of the United States?” It slips from her mouth before she can stop it, like a dog running out the door.

But he laughs! He thinks it’s charming. “No, president of the choral society,” he says, and takes her hand to swing her around in a little jig. When they sit down finally on the bed his mood changes and he tells her an extraordinary thing. She can’t decide whether it’s just a speech or something he really feels. Something he tells only her. He says, “I’m doing this for the black man and the Latino man and the American Indian. For the working people like your father and all the other fathers who send their boys to Southeast Asia for no reason anybody can explain to them. Just out of their goodness and their faith in the country. For the unwed mother in Chicago who’s raising her sister’s kids, too, who gets by on a welfare check and five swing shifts a week at the Uniroyal plant in Gary. Those are the people I’m going to help. Those are the people I’m doing this for. Those are the ones.”

He’s a hero, she decides. Takes his strength and gives it to the country. Those strong arms and that voice and that mind that turns her around on a string sometimes like the mobile in the dentist’s office. He hasn’t said this to anybody else yet. That’s what she decides. And he looked at her face right after he finished saying it. Her face. He turned to her as he sat on the bed. She remembers that so clearly—because this was really something he should have been saying standing up, that's how good it was—and something changed in his face as he knotted his tie and jerked it straight in the collar. Was it her own look? She’s tried and tried, but for the life of her she can’t remember whether she smiled.
In this and the other passages Canin chose—and, indeed, throughout America America—we see a writer skilled at inhabiting his characters—at putting himself in their shoes. Whether it’s JoEllen, neither vixen nor victim, who “decides” what she is going to believe about her powerful lover, or Bonwiller, adulterer and betrayer of the trust who nonetheless champions the cause of the little man, we see and feel the depths of the other, the struggle between the dark places and the light, both the characters’ and our own.

During Q&A, Canin pointed to this sense of empathy as the richest path to invention for a fiction writer. He said there are four things a writer needs to be successful (only three of which I was able to remember):
  1. A facility for prose, words, sentence structure
  2. An ability to get knocked down and pick yourself up again
  3. [The third, forgotten one]
  4. An interest in people and real empathy
The message he gives his students along these lines is, “Don’t write your characters, become your characters.” He elaborates in an interview with Jill Owens of

[It] really is almost like throwing your voice, or throwing your consciousness across the room to someone else. Writing is essentially about 85 percent misery. That moment of empathy is one of the few pleasurable things I can take from writing, to imagine life from somebody else's point of view.
For me, this conjures the memory of my father’s description, years ago, of how he would judge whether a place was a good place to live. He would “look at it from a hobo’s point of view,” he said. “A hobo’s got to carry everything he owns with him, so it can’t be too hot in the summer,” he would say, “but it can’t be too cold in the winter either, because he has to sleep outside.” And that, I’m happy to say, is how I ended up being raised in Northern California. Empathy wins again.

A few other highlights from the Canin Q&A:

On Freeing the Imagination
In response to a shamelessly pandering question about how flawless his prose is (“How do you do that???”), Canin veered toward ways to free the imagination. He said he had tried the conventional methods like traveling all over the place and doing dangerous things, and that none of those ever worked. He then mentioned long drives (“especially with a stick shift”) as a good method, noting that there’s something about the consistent attention to the gears and the road combined with long stretches of inattention that allowed his imagination to run. But he said, without fail, the best way to free the imagination is to read. He mentioned a Saul Bellow book he had read multiple times, as well as some other authors I can’t recall.

On Writing through Discovery
In response to a questioner who asked whether he mapped out his novels in advance, Canin told how John Irving famously said he would write one sentence that captured his concept for a novel, then post that one sentence over his keyboard and write the rest of the novel as sort of “sub-thoughts” to that central idea. Canin said he could never write that way, that if he knew where the story was going, he could never finish it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Kiara Brinkman on the Voice of the Child

I've been struggling with a piece for some time--well, years actually--that features an eleven-year-old boy as its first-person protagonist. The reason the piece has been a struggle is that, while I feel it succeeds in conveying an engaging story while remaining true to the young protagonist's voice and mannerisms, it doesn't go to the level it needs to in reaching outside the definitively small world inhabited by the innocent. The best young-protagonist stories, of course, succeed wildly at this, and I've recently discovered a book that serves as an excellent example: Kiara Brinkman's gripping and heartbreaking debut novel, Up High in the Trees. The authenticity and consistency with which Brinkman inhabits the voice of eight-year-old Sebby Lane is remarkable in and of itself. But even more remarkable, this vulnerable and damaged protagonist takes us into truly profound adult realms while retaining every shred of his essential innocence. At the Booksmith on Monday night, Brinkman read a passage that included the following. The voice is Sebby's, and he is staying with his father at his family's summerhouse on the lake. He has just taken a precious picture of his mother, a spirited and playful bohemian who has tragically died young, and ridden his bike to the pier with the picture in his pocket.
I leave the bike and walk down the pier with the picture of Mother in my secret pocket. The white paint on the pier is peeling off and underneath the wood is old. I don't like how the peeling paint looks like fish scales flaking off. Too many fish scales. I want to stop and touch where the paint is peeling but I don't. I know what to do.

At the end of the pier, I take the picture of Mother out of my pocket. I kiss Mother's forehead and look at her laughing face for a long time.

Then I drop the picture into the water and watch it float. I wait for it to start sinking. It's supposed to sink down the way Mother's pink soap bird sank down when she dropped it in the water, but the picture keeps floating. I lie on my stomach and reach down. I touch the water with just one finger to test how it feels. The cold feels like burning and growing, like it's making my finger stretch out bigger and bigger. Then with my whole hand, I push the picture of Mother under. I hold the picture down and look at Mother's face underwater. Her face flickers like a light, on and off. I pull my hand out and it feels heavy, like it's not mine. Mother's picture stays underwater.

I stand up with my hand hanging down heaving and I watch the picture underwater. I'm waiting for Mother's picture to make me jump. The Mother's face flickers dark and I jump in to save her.

Through Sebby's observations (“Too many fish scales....”), we feel the world's imperfection and degradation. Through his actions (“I kiss Mother's forehead and look at her laughing face for a long time....I drop the picture into the water...”), we touch the love not just of the child, but of the mother, too. Through his sensations (“The cold feels like burning and growing,...”), we know his vulnerabilities and limitations, and also our own. The mood of the story is at once magical and mercilessly real, and through it all, the voice never wavers.

I asked Brinkman about this during the Q&A after the reading, pointing out that this inhabiting of the child’s voice is something she does amazingly well, and asking her where this comes from, if there are influences, or study or research that she does, or if it's just natural (this time, I think, actually verbalizing the threat to slit my wrists on that last one). In response, she pointed us to two influences. First, she said one of the books she read and re-read when she was young was Joyce’s The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, the early chapters in particular. Her general praise for Joyce reminded me immediately of “The Sisters” and “Araby” in Dubliners, and “The Drunkard,” all of which feature young protagonists facing new and daunting realities in a cruel world. Second, Brinkman credited the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, of whom she said she was an avid reader. She said that though she doesn't write anything like Schulz, his ability to express the larger story through his young characters was one of the things she really loved about his work. At the autograph table, Andrew Sean Greer seconded this recommendation, and I scurried off to grab a copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, which has a Foreword by Jonathan Safran Foer.

All in all, an excellent set of pointers and jogs to the memory to get me back to my struggling eleven-year-old...reading group beware!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Halcyon Days in California...but Whither Obama?

I'm kind of a pussy. In fact, it's not all that unusual to find me in tears in front of a soft drink commercial. So you can imagine what these past two days have been like, with dozens of touching and triumphant stories like this one (MP3 download) streaming out of my car radio. As same-sex couples in California enter into legal marriages by the thousands, even straight, married, almost-middle-aged white guys like me are feeling the joy.

But in these halcyon days, when Californians are crashing through a historic civil rights barricade and neglected generations of Americans are finally enjoying the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of community-sanctioned marriages, the question I find myself asking is, "Where is Barack Obama?" A pivotal moment in American political history, with national and perhaps international significance, occurring in Northern California, the place that powered Obama's meteoric rise, and the nominee has yet to comment? It's a head-scratcher.

Gavin Newsom, San Francisco's defiantly progressive mayor (and, in my optimistic opinion, a future President of the United States), seems to agree. Shortly after officiating at the historic wedding of Phyllis Lyon, 83, and Del Martin, 87, Newsom commented on Obama's conspicuous absence. Noting that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has opposed a state constitutional amendment that would once again ban same-sex marriage, and that Obama has so far been mute on the subject, Newsom said, "Contrast that, a Republican governor of California coming out against it, and then a Democratic nominee for president not sure, that's not a great sign." Public radio correspondent Scott Shafer, who filed the report, said that "Newsom, who originally supported Hillary Clinton, has endorsed Obama, but he says unless Obama comes out strongly against the [constitutional amendment], he'll wonder about the Illinois senator's authenticity as a new kind of leader."

Looking more closely at Obama's long-held and consistently stated position on the issue, you can almost see why he would stay away from California right now. According to the Pew Forum on Religion in Political Life, Obama's position on same-sex marriage can be encapsulated as follows:

Obama says that he personally believes that "marriage is between a man and a woman" but also says that "equality is a moral imperative" for gay and lesbian Americans. He advocates the complete repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) because "federal law should not discriminate in any way against gay and lesbian couples, which is precisely what DOMA does." He supports granting civil unions for gay couples, and in 2006 he opposed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. In March 2007, Obama initially avoided answering questions about a controversial statement by a U.S. general that "homosexual acts" are "immoral," but Obama later told CNN's Larry King, "I don't think that homosexuals are immoral any more than I think heterosexuals are immoral."

But if he opposes a same-sex marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution, why not the constitution of the most populous state in the union? What's more, there's a train going down the tracks here, and Obama isn't exactly sitting in the dining car. He may be trying to keep a firm grip on the handrail in the vestibule, but for me, that's just a downright dirty shame. And it's a shame not because I think it will cost him votes (in fact, regrettably, it will probably preserve him some), or because it tarnishes his standing as a true progressive, but because I think he's wrong on this one. And I think history will prove that out as the millenial generation grows into a powerful voting bloc and the battle for gay and lesbian rights becomes the latest long-deserved victory in America's ongoing human rights struggle.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Andrew Sean Greer on Transport and Grandmothers

Fred Leebron, one of my favorite writing teachers at Queens University of Charlotte, talks sometimes about the idea of transport in fiction writing. Now I often don’t know what the hell Fred is talking about, but I love him anyway because his passion for the craft is infectious. As for this transport thing, you may know very well what it is, and if so, good on ya, but I’ve had to struggle with it a bit—until now.

In Andrew Sean Greer’s novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli, I have discovered an author who masterfully and relentlessly transports us through time, space, emotion, and consciousness while at the same time keeping us firmly anchored in the story, and more specifically, in the scene, the interaction, the emotion he wants us to see and feel. He keeps us right where he wants us, but takes us everywhere at the same time.

Being the incorrigible suck-up that I am, I told Greer this (well, not all of it, but the gist of it anyway) when he appeared at Booksmith in the Haight last Thursday night. The following is an excerpt from the reading he did that night, which was from his new novel, The Story of a Marriage. The setting is San Francisco, 1953, and in this scene, the first-person protagonist, Pearl Cook, is in the backyard chatting with Buzz, an old army buddy of her husband, Holland. Pearl and Holland have a son they call Sonny, who is sickly, and a dog named Lyle. Buzz is helping Pearl hang out the laundry, and he has just called her attention to his nose, which has obviously been broken before.

I nodded. “It’s a beauty.”

“Thank you.”

“How did you get it?”


The sun flashed across the billowing sheets. I blinked, turned toward Buzz, and saw him raising a hand to his face just as the sunlight stained him white all along his arm.

“Holland hit you?”

Buzz just cocked his head and watched me. Holland never raised his voice except at the radio, never hit a thing except the couch pillows before he sat down, grinning, with his cigarette. But once, of course, he’d been a different man, a man trained to shoot other men during the war, who drank, who sang with soldiers and hit a friend across the nose.

At last I asked, “Was it over a woman?”

He handed me a pair of trousers. “Yes.”

I pulled out the trouser dryer and began to stretch the pants onto it. “Tell me.”

“Pearlie,” he said. “We were born at a bad time.”

“I don’t know what you mean. It’s a fine time.”

I didn’t know what he meant by “we.” I couldn’t imagine what might bind me together with a man like Buzz, as likable as he was. I couldn’t draw any kind of line around the two of us.

“You’re proud of your house. You have a nice touch.”

“It belongs to Holland’s family.”

“It can’t be cheap,” he said to me. “I mean Sonny being sick and all.”

“Holland’s aunts help out. With the bills, the braces, it is a lot. It keeps me inside a good deal, I tell you, taking care of him,” I said without thinking. “Of course it’s no trouble,” I added hastily.

“Now what would you do if you had all the money you needed?”

I had no answer to that. It was a thoughtless question to ask a poor woman with a sick son, something only a rich man would ask. Like wondering aloud to a freshly brokenhearted girl: “What if it turns out he loved you after all?” It was something I had never allowed myself to think about. What would I have done? I’d have moved my family away from a house like that, with glaring neighbors, and stains on the basement walls from the ocean creeping in, with crickets sifting in under the doorsills with the sand…to Egypt, to Mali, to some fantasy destination I only knew from books. My God, I’d have flown to Mars with Holland and Sonny and never come back. That was the only answer I could think of. A woman like me, I couldn’t afford to name my real desires. I couldn’t even afford to know them.

All I said was, “I’ve got everything I need. I’m happy.”

“I know, but just imagine…where would you live?”

“This house is better than anything my parents had.”

“But just say…an apartment high above the city? A cliff over an ocean, with a view from your bed? Five hundred acres with a fence all around?”

“What would I do with five hundred acres?” I said without thinking.

Then he looked right at me, not a shy man at all, and I think for a moment I understood.

I stood there, staring at him, with the metal dryer contraption in my hand and the damp trousers over my arm. The sun came in full and lit the world from top to bottom; you could almost hear the jasmine reaching up for it. Then we heard the sound of Holland’s car returning and Buzz turned away.

In a moment, Holland shouted “Hey there!” from the house. I heard a bicycle bell, and Sonny heading down the hall in pursuit of love.

And Buzz said nothing else, touching his nose as if touching the memory of pain. He was half to the sun, and the shadow of his ruined hand fell across his long face in the form of another, younger hand cradling his cheek. The wind burrowed into his hair like a living creature. I didn’t say a word to him as he went inside, just continued stretching the trousers in the sun to dry. And down I went—into the green deep, flecked with gold and draped with waving plants, endless, bottomless—and forgot what I had glimpsed. I was a careful woman, a good gardener, and I pruned away the doubt. But you know the heart: every night, it grows a thorn.

So after this reading, and after I mustered the cojones to raise my hand, I mentioned this idea of transport to Greer and told him his work had helped me to better understand what it meant. I pointed out that in the excerpt he had just read, we were taken to the war, where two friends had an altercation, to the couch, where Holland grins and whacks the pillows, to Mali, to Egypt, to Mars, to the hallway of the house, forward and backward in time, and through a huge range of emotions, but we were never taken out of that tense, powerful, revealing moment between Pearl and Buzz. I then asked him about the process: I asked if the story just came out of him that way (not mentioning that if he had answered “yes” to that, I would have hunted down a straight razor and slit my wrists), or if he focused on a particular dimension of the story for a time and then did multiple passes, interleaving the various dimensions into the final, complete whole…or what?

His answer, in essence, was that a story like this one, which is essentially about a housewife who rarely leaves her house, needs a broader dimension to hold the reader’s interest. He said he feels it’s his responsibility to give the reader that broader dimension, so when he revises, when he is adding metaphors to color in the lines, he looks to do it in a way that broadens the reach of the story—taking the reader, for instance, out of the backyard and all the way to Mars. In this particular case, the book is only 198 pages, so he said he felt that these wider glances and forays have added meat to the book, making it a more satisfying read in the end.

I know that I, for one, intend to find out for myself.

Greer on His Grandmothers – and Strong Women Everywhere

As mentioned above, The Story of a Marriage is a first-person tale narrated by a protagonist who is a housewife in San Francisco in 1953. In response to a question about his use of the first person, Greer explained that he used it because wanted to deeply explore the feelings of women who had strong personalities, but were constrained by the customs and social mores of the time. This idea grew out of his experiences with and memories of his own grandmothers, both of whom were strong women who must have had to live with these kinds of constraints. He told the story of one grandmother who, when she died, left behind a bottle of Vodka hidden in the flour canister, $5,000 in bills wrapped in tinfoil, a handgun hidden in the freezer, and a box of correspondence she had written—apparently without the family’s knowledge, or at least without it becoming general knowledge in the family—to every president who had sat during her adult life.

Not sure if it was the same grandmother, but he told another story that had to do with the time he came out as a gay man to his grandmother. (“Not her favorite subject,” he said.) Shortly after he had done this, the Atlanta Olympics were about to start, not far from his grandmother’s home in Greenville County, South Carolina. Learning that Greenville County had just passed a resolution declaring homosexuality "incompatible with the standards to which this community subscribes," Greer’s grandmother wrote a letter to the Olympic Committee protesting the fact that the Olympic torch was about to be run through the county. She pointed out that Olympic rules specified that the torch could not be run through any area that had laws violating basic human rights. The Olympic Committee took action, and the torch was shrouded in a van as it passed through Greenville County. (True story. Check it out:

Monday, June 9, 2008

Broken Silence

A reminiscence on Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio...

The headlines in Ohio’s small-town papers spoke of a democracy on the brink of chaos: “Democrats Say Effort Being Made to Steal the Election” (Portsmouth Daily Times); “Final Result of Election Still Hangs in the Balance” (Xenia Daily Gazette); “Talk of Election Being Thrown into the Hands of Congress” (Butler County Democrat). We read these headlines and remember the battle for Ohio, 2004, when George W. Bush lost in the cities but won by more than 149,000 votes in small towns, thus ensuring his victory in the national election. It was the latest microcosm of a polarized America: white against black, religious against secular, urban against rural, and a near-stalemate that (again) exposed the deep chasm between red-voting towns and blue-voting cities.

However, these headlines are not from 2004; they are from 1916, the year Woodrow Wilson edged Charles Evans Hughes by just 3% of the votes, and the year Sherwood Anderson began publishing the series of stories that eventually became his masterwork, Winesburg, Ohio.

In 1916, as in 2004, America was at war, and the party that had gotten the country into war had also won re-election. Anderson was living at the time in what he described as “a cheap room in a Chicago rooming house,” and from there, he gave the world one of its earliest truly candid views of the realities of small-town American life. A week after the 1916 election, Anderson wrote to Waldo Frank, his friend and editor, “It is my own idea that when these studies are published in book form, they will suggest the real environment out of which present-day American youth is coming.” Clearly, he knew what he was doing. But he never could have known how relevant his characters’ joys, passions, anxieties, and abasements would still be among the social and political chasms of the early 21st century.

In a 1984 Harper’s essay, John Updike astutely writes that the Winesburg stories portray characters who “…walk otherwise isolated toward some inexpressible denouement of private revelation.” He continues:
Inexpressiveness, indeed, is what is above all expressed: the characters, often, talk only to George Willard [the central protagonist], and then only once; their attempts to talk with one another tend to culminate in a comedy of tongue-tied silence.
Indeed, Anderson’s characters repeatedly come to the brink of intimacy, only to founder under their own inhibitions. In “Adventure,” Alice Hindman’s pent-up sexual desires erupt in a mad, naked dash into the rainy night that ends in silence and shame. In “The Strength of God” and “The Teacher,” the passions of another young woman, Kate Swift, are stunted as she ends up exposed, naked and kneeling on her bed in prayer. And in “Mother” and “Death,” Elizabeth Willard, George’s mother, desperate for her son to escape Winesburg, is unable to speak her heart to him and ends up dying in silence.

Men, too, both old and young, fail to find expression. Wing Biddlebaum, in “Hands,” churns under the silence of an accused (and perhaps guilty) child molester. In “The Philosopher,” Doctor Parcival, who is haunted by memories of his early years, seeks comfort in writing but fails at it, and in the end begs George Willard, “…perhaps you will be able to write the book that I may never get written.” And Seth Richmond, in “The Thinker,” has intelligence, ambition, and determination, but no facility for words. He rails against the useless talk of others, saying in the end, “I’ll do something, get into some kind of work where talk don’t count….I just want to work and keep quiet.”

From these portrayals of small-town reticence in the 1890s, fast-forward fifty years: The country wins decisively in two world wars and parlays those victories into military and economic dominance. Fast-forward twenty more years, and in the cities, a mood of self-examination takes hold, and in the South, a thirst for justice. Cultural upheaval and movement toward racial, economic, and sexual equality rise up, and yet hundreds of Winesburgs still cling to their silence. It is then that a new wave of charismatics arrives to incite them. Jerry Falwell transforms the “silent majority” into the self-dubbed Moral Majority. Christianity becomes big business as megachurches move in alongside big box stores. And the media replaces the steady and informative voices of Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, and John Chancellor with the more lucrative cable news shout-fests of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.

And the real citizens all over the land who are portrayed so faithfully in Winesburg, Ohio are given a voice that waves its fists at TV screens and speaks loudly at the polls.

But Anderson’s lessons, we know, are broader and more essential: Life is strange, he shows us; life is brutal, life will slash at your emotions, and though the scabs will peel, the scars left behind will serve as constant reminders. And through it all, the town itself will always be a force: it is a refuge to some, a prison to others, but to most, it is both. For those like George Willard and his creator, who choose to leave, the small town nonetheless stays with them. It is indelible and precious. And whether we vote blue or red, whether we are part of a Winesburg world or just curious readers looking in, a return trip to Winesburg, Ohio in this momentous time offers us a real chance at greater understanding.